Jack Johnson Redux: A Catalyst For Consensus?

BY George Kimball ON March 31, 2009
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WASHINGTON, D. C. --- Now that last fall’s elections are a thing of the past, John McCain, Ken Burns, and I can all be on the same side again.

And so, unless the Arizona Senator had badly misread his erstwhile foe in last year’s presidential sweepstakes, can President Barack Obama.

This wasn’t the first time McCain has introduced a resolution to pardon the great Jack Johnson, but, the Arizona Senator vowed Wednesday afternoon, “we’re not gonna do it again.”

Not that McCain is giving up on his quest for vindication for Li’l Arthur. It’s just that this time he believes he’s dealing with a President who will actually sign the measure, which was introduced in both houses of Congress on April 1 – one day after the 121st anniversary of Johnson’s birth.

Wednesday’s announcement was made at the Russell Senate Office Building, where McCain and his House co-sponsor, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) were joined by Burns, Johnson’s great-great niece Linda Haywood, and several other descendants.

“We need to erase this act of racism against a great American citizen,” said McCain. “Jack Johnson was prosecuted on trumped-up charges – and I have great confidence that this president will be more than eager to sign this resolution.”

Of course, when McCain introduced an earlier Johnson bill in 2005 he harbored similar optimism that Obama’s predecessor would endorse his position. When the Senator and I spoke at that time, he had optimistically informed me that, as Governor of Texas, George W. Bush had actually proclaimed March 31 – the Galveston native’s birthday – “Jack Johnson Day” in that state for five consecutive years.

As it turned out, Bush the Governor was somewhat more comfortable about honoring the legacy of the first black heavyweight champion than Bush the President was about expunging the criminal record of the unrepentant icon celebrated in Burns’ 2005 PBS film “Unforgivable Blackness.”  (The title was taken from W.E.B. DuBois’ analysis of Johnson’s rise and fall.)

Johnson, unable to compete against any of the succession of Caucasian champions in this country, finally got his chance on Boxing Day of 1908 when Tommy Burns agreed to face him at Rushcutter’s Bay outside Sydney, Australia.  Johnson was awarded the heavyweight title by referee Hugh McIntosh, the lone scoring official when the fight was interrupted by police during the 14th round.

As a potential challenger, Johnson couldn’t buy a match against a while fighter, but once he was champion, Great White Hopes were coming out of the woodwork to challenge him. He fought and defeated Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, the light-heavyweight champion. In 1909 he fought Stanley Ketchel, the middleweight champion, in what was supposed, by prior arrangement, to have been little more than a gentlemanly exhibition. In the twelfth round, Ketchel, alas, got carried away and knocked Johnson down, effectively abrogating the agreement. Johnson got up and knocked Ketchel out with a single punch that scattered his teeth across the ring. Ketchel’s manager later retrieved a couple of them and had them made into a pair of dice.

At the urging of Jack London, among others, the retired James J. Jeffries was lured out of retirement to take up the white man’s burden by disposing of Johnson. Instead, Johnson disposed of Jeffries, scoring a 15th round knockout in their 1910 “Fight of the Century” in Reno.

It wasn’t just the notion of the greatest prize in all of sport belonging to an African American that so galled London and his ilk. Johnson’s lifestyle disturbed them even more. He lived flamboyantly, consorted with prostitutes, many of them white, and, worse, he even married two white women. Unable to beat him in the ring, the authorities went after him with a vengeance, first shutting down his Chicago nightclub, the Café de Champion, and then charging him with a violation of the so-called Mann Act, a recently-enacted piece of legislation aimed at so-called “white slavery,” which made it a federal crime to “transport a woman across interstate lines for immoral purposes.”

Nothing in Johnson’s conduct suggested that he was remotely culpable of the crime the law was intended to punish, but the authorities were so determined to bring him down that they pushed ahead with their case against Johnson for having allegedly corrupted the morals of a young white woman named Lucille Cameron. The charge had gotten as far as a grand jury when Johnson confounded the prosecution by making Miss Cameron his wife. 

So the government went out and created another case under which to prosecute him. This time they found a prostitute named Belle Schreiver, whom the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner to today’s FBI) held incommunicado and moved around the country until she finally agreed to testify that the heavyweight champion, a former lover, had wired her money for train fare to move from Pittsburgh to Chicago, where he allegedly assisted her in opening a high-class whorehouse.

On the basis of this somewhat coerced testimony, Jack Johnson was convicted, in 1913, on the “white slavery” charge. He avoided immediate imprisonment by slipping across the Canadian border and making his way to Europe.

In exile, Johnson defended his title twice in Paris, and fought another in Argentina, before agreeing to meet Jess Willard in Havana on April 5, 1915. In a bout that has always been regarded with some suspicion, Johnson succumbed in the 26th round.

There is no question but that the Mann Act conviction not only effectively wrecked  Johnson’s career but succeeded in its even more insidious aim of destroying his reputation.

He had several more fights in Europe (including one against the surrealist Arthur Cravan at a Bullring in Spain), and a few in Mexico, but increasingly homesick, he finally reached out to the US Government and agreed to surrender. In a plea-bargained arrangement, he served less than a year at Leavenworth, and even had a few fights while he was doing time. He fought well into his fifties, and had his last fight, in Boston, in 1938, six months after his 60th birthday. He was killed in an automobile accident in North Carolina in 1946.

His overall career log was 73-13-9. Over half of the losses occurred after his 48th birthday.

When Burns was making “Unforgivable Blackness” he was so moved by the litany of injustice that he undertook the formation a Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson. Five years ago he approached McCain about sponsoring the resolution, and the Arizona Senator, a onetime Naval Academy lightweight who had authored the two most significant pieces of successful boxing legislation in American history – the Professional Boxing Safety Act, signed into law by President Clinton in a 1996, and the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000 – became an enthusiastic accomplice.

Burns had obtained the pro bono services of a New York law firm to draft the Johnson resolution, but each attempt met with frustration.

“It got bogged down because of inertia,” McCain told me Wednesday. After he and King had announced the introduction of the latest Johnson pardon bid to come before congress, I’d asked about the fate of the earlier attempts.

“It was inexcusable,” sighed McCain, “and then, of course, I got bogged down with a few other, uh, pursuits…”

Like last fall’s sparring sessions with Barack Obama.

His White House staff had so thoroughly insulated  Bush that Obama’s predecessor never had to actually come to grips with any of the Johnson resolutions, because not a single one of them ever reached his desk. When Burns asked what had happened to the carefully-crafted petition drafted by the New York law firm, he says he was told by presidential advisor Karl Rove, “It ain’t gonna fly.”

When Rep. King, the house’s foremost boxing proponent (he works out regularly at a Long Island gym) introduced last year’s resolution, which it was quickly approved through in the lower chamber only to die of attrition, bottled up in a Justice Department review.

The excuse at Justice was that posthumous pardons were all but unheard of. There had only been one in history – that came in 1998, when President Clinton retroactively pardoned Henry Flipper, the first African American West Point graduate, who had been court-martialed on an apparently racially motivated embezzlement charge while serving as a quartermaster at Fort Sill in 1882.

But two days before last Christmas, Bush himself granted a posthumous pardon -- to the late Charles Winters, who had been convicted of violating the Neutrality Act for supplying two B-17s to Israel in 1948.

Not that one more precedent is likely to make a big difference. McCain said Wednesday that while he had not personally approached the President, “probably the last person I have to convince is President Obama,” whom he fully expects to support the measure, particularly since Johnson was a Chicago resident at the time of his persecution.

“It’s important that it be done,” said McCain. “A grave injustice was done to Jack Johnson, and while a pardon won’t correct this injustice, it would recognize it, and shed light on the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice. Taking such action would allow future generation to grasp fully what Jack Johnson accomplished – against great odds – and to appreciate his contributions to society, unencumbered by the taint of a criminal conviction.”

Said King: “We’ve come a long way, and frankly, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the first African American president pardons the first African American heavyweight champion. It’s now been over a hundred years since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title. It’s time we restored his reputation with a pardon that is long overdue.”

Burns expressed a word of caution lest the Johnson campaign be argued entirely on its racial merits: “This isn’t a question of color,” said the filmmaker. “It’s a question of justice.”

Despite the success of his earlier measure in the House of Representatives, King said, “I would never predict that anything is going to fly right through Congress, but I expect that it will. Put it this way: Senator McCain obviously knows President Obama a lot better than I do, and he seems to have every confidence that this President will be eager to sign the resolution.”

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